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Carrying coffins, thousands of Afghans protest beheadings of Hazara minorities

Demonstrators carrying coffins marched through the streets of Kabul to the gates of the Afghan presidential palace on Wednesday in a massive, mostly peaceful protest following the beheadings of seven civilians, allegedly by militants allied to Islamic State.

Thousands of people joined what residents called one of the largest protests in the Afghan capital in recent memory, but when some protesters attempted to climb the gates of the palace, security forces fired shots. At least eight people were injured, according to news reports.

Crowds said the coffins belonged to the beheading victims, including a 9-year-old girl, whose bodies were found Saturday in the southern province of Zabul. All were members of the Hazara ethnic minority and were traveling from their home province of Ghazni when they were abducted last month.

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With the crowds accusing President Ashraf Ghani’s government of failing to address Afghanistan’s worsening insecurity, the demonstration was the latest sign of a spiraling crisis of confidence in a country where violence against civilians is rising, the economy is struggling and more people are trying to leave.

“The nation has been destroyed -- it is continuing to be destroyed because these men do not care about the people they are meant to serve,” one protester, Hajji Shirzad, said of Ghani and members of his government.

Roads throughout Kabul were blocked during the rainy morning as men and women carried the victims’ coffins and pictures to a traffic circle just outside the presidential palace. Demonstrators protected by a human chain called for Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to resign.

“Realistically we all know they can’t quit, but they must wake up and address the fact that their own people don’t feel safe, physically or financially,” said Omaid Najafi, 39, originally from Ghazni.

In a speech Wednesday, Ghani said he shared the pain of the victims' families and called on Afghans to maintain national unity.

“We must not let any force divide us,” he said. “So long as our unity stands, we will never bow to another force.”

The killings were also a sign of growing lawlessness as the militant landscape in Afghanistan becomes more fractured.

Fighters said to be loyal to Islamic State -- the militant organization that has taken over parts of Syria and Iraq -- have been battling the main Taliban insurgent movement in several areas of Afghanistan. The Taliban has also splintered in recent months following the disclosure that the group’s longtime leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is dead.

Last week, some Taliban fighters said they would not remain loyal to Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, and selected a new leader, Mullah Muhammad Rasool. A breakaway Taliban group was said to have fought alongside the Islamic State-allied militants at the time of the abductions.

Local reports in Zabul said fighters from the main Taliban movement hanged their rivals for their alleged role in the beheadings.

The National Directorate of Security, the Afghan spy agency, dismissed claims of Islamic State involvement and accused the Taliban of the killings.

Protester Fatema Rezai, 32, said the infighting between armed opposition groups shows just how insecure Afghanistan has become. She was most shocked that a 9-year-old girl was among the dead. Pointing to her daughter, who had also joined the demonstration, Rezai said, “This could have been her. It could have been any of us.”

Latifi is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

10:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with a statement by President Ashraf Ghani.

This article was originally published at 4:57 a.m.

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